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There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft. I was living in the town, and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it. I was almost thirteen and I was wrong. I was wrong about all of it. I should have asked the question “Why would someone say something was stolen when it was never theirs to begin with?” Instead, I asked the wrong question—four wrong questions, more or less. This is the account of the first.
The Hemlock Tearoom and Stationery Shop is the sort of place where the floors always feel dirty, even when they are clean. They were not clean on the day in question. The food at the Hemlock is too awful to eat, particularly the eggs, which are probably the worst eggs in the entire city, including those on exhibit at the Museum of Bad Breakfast, where visitors can learn just how badly eggs can be prepared. The Hemlock sells paper and pens that are damaged and useless, but the tea is drinkable, and the place is located across the street from the train station, so it is an acceptable place to sit with one’s parents before boarding a train for a new life. I was wearing the suit I’d been given as a graduation present. It had hung in my closet for weeks, like an empty person. I felt glum and thirsty. When the tea arrived, for a moment the steam was all I could see. I’d said good-bye to someone very quickly and was wishing I’d taken longer. I told myself that it didn’t matter and that certainly it was no time to frown around town. You have work to do, Snicket, I told myself. There is no time for moping.
You’ll see her soon enough in any case, I thought, incorrectly.
Then the steam cleared, and I looked at the people who were with me. It is curious to look at one’s family and try to imagine how they look to strangers. I saw a large-shouldered man in a brown, linty suit that looked like it made him uncomfortable, and a woman drumming her fingernails on the table, over and over, the sound like a tiny horse’s galloping. She happened to have a flower in her hair. They were both smiling, particularly the man.
“You have plenty of time before your train, son,” he said. “Would you like to order something to eat? Eggs?”
“No, thank you,” I said.
“We’re both so proud of our little boy,” said the woman, who perhaps would have looked nervous to someone who was looking closely at her. Or perhaps not. She stopped drumming her fingers on the table and ran them through my hair. Soon I would need a haircut. “You must be all a-tingle with excitement.”
“I guess so,” I said, but I did not feel a-tingle. I did not feel a-anything.
“Put your napkin in your lap,” she told me.
“Well, then, drink your tea,” she said, and another woman came into the Hemlock. She did not look at me or my family or anywhere at all. She brushed by my table, very tall, with a very great deal of very wild hair. Her shoes made noise on the floor. She stopped at a rack of envelopes and grabbed the first one she saw, tossing a coin to the woman behind the counter, who caught it almost without looking, and then she was back out the door. With all the tea on all the tables, it looked like one of her pockets was steaming. I was the only one who had noticed her. She did not look back.
There are two good reasons to put your napkin in your lap. One is that food might spill in your lap, and it is better to stain the napkin than your clothing. The other is that it can serve as a perfect hiding place. Practically nobody is nosy enough to take the napkin off a lap to see what is hidden there. I sighed deeply and stared down at my lap, as if I were lost in thought, and then quickly and quietly I unfolded and read the note the woman had dropped there.
CLIMB OUT THE WINDOW IN THE BATHROOM AND MEET ME IN THE ALLEY BEHIND THIS SHOP. I WILL BE WAITING IN THE GREEN ROADSTER. YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES.—S
“Roadster,” I knew, was a fancy word for “car,” and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of person would take the time to write “roadster” when the word “car” would do. I also couldn’t help but wonder what sort of person would sign a secret note, even if they only signed the letter S. A secret note is secret. There is no reason to sign it.
“Are you OK, son?”
“I need to excuse myself,” I said, and stood up. I put the napkin down on the table but kept the note crumpled up in my hand.
“Drink your tea.”
“Mother,” I said.
“Let him go, dear,” said the man in the brown suit. “He’s almost thirteen. It’s a difficult age.”
I stood up and walked to the back of the Hemlock. Probably one minute had passed already. The woman behind the counter watched me look this way and that. In restaurants they always make you ask where the bathroom is, even when there’s nothing else you could be looking for. I told myself not to be embarrassed.
“If I were a bathroom,” I said to the woman, “where would I be?”
She pointed to a small hallway. I noticed the coin was still in her hand. I stepped quickly down the hallway without looking back. I would not see the Hemlock Tearoom and Stationery Shop again for years and years.
I walked into the bathroom and saw that I was not alone. I could think of only two things to do in a bathroom while waiting to be alone. I did one of them, which was to stand at the sink and splash some cold water on my face. I took the opportunity to wrap the note in a paper towel and then run the thing under the water so it was a wet mess. I threw it away. Probably nobody would look for it.
A man came out of the stall and caught my eye in the mirror. “Are you all right?” he asked me. I must have looked nervous.
“I had the eggs,” I said, and he washed his hands sympathetically and left. I turned off the water and looked at the only window. It was small and square and had a very simple latch. A child could open it, which was good, because I was a child. The problem was that it was ten feet above me, in a high corner of the bathroom. Even standing on tiptoes, I couldn’t reach the point where I’d have to stand if I wanted to reach the point to open the latch. Any age was a difficult age for someone needing to get through that window.
I walked into the bathroom stall. Behind the toilet was a large parcel wrapped in brown paper and string, but wrapped loosely, as if nobody cared whether you opened it or not. Leaned up against the wall like that, it didn’t look interesting. It looked like something the Hemlock needed, or a piece of equipment a plumber had left behind. It looked like none of your business. I dragged it into the middle of the stall and shut the door behind me as I tore open the paper. I didn’t lock it. A man with large shoulders could force open a door like that even if it were locked.
It was a folding ladder. I knew it was there. I’d put it there myself.
It was probably one minute to find the note, one to walk to the bathroom, one to wait for the man to leave, and two to set up the ladder, unlatch the window, and half-jump, half-slide out the window into a small puddle in the alley. That’s five minutes. I brushed muddy water off my pants. The roadster was small and green and looked like it had once been a race car, but now it had cracks and creaks all along its curved body. The roadster had been neglected. No one had taken care of it, and now it was too late. The woman was frowning behind the steering wheel when I got in. Her hair was now wrestled into place by a small leather helmet. The windows were rolled down, and the rainy air matched the mood in the car.
“I’m S. Theodora Markson,” she said.
“I’m Lemony Snicket,” I said, and handed her an envelope I had in my pocket. Inside was something we called a letter of introduction, just a few paragraphs describing me as somebody who was an excellent reader, a good cook, a mediocre musician, and an awful quarreler. I had been instructed not to read my letter of introduction, and it had taken me some time to slip the envelope open and then reseal it.
“I know who you are,” she said, and tossed the envelope into the backseat. She was staring through the windshield like we were already on the road. “There’s been a change of plans. We’re in a great hurry. The situation is more complicated than you understand or than I am in a position to explain to you under the present circumstances.”
“Under the present circumstances,” I repeated. “You mean, right now?”
“Of course that’s what I mean.”
“If we’re in a great hurry, why didn’t you just say ‘right now’?”
She reached across my lap and pushed open the door. “Get out,” she said.
“I will not be spoken to this way. Your predecessor, the young man who worked under me before you, he never spoke to me this way. Never. Get out.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Do you want to work under me, Snicket? Do you want me to be your chaperone?”
I stared out at the alley. “Yes,” I said.
“Then know this: I am not your friend. I am not your teacher. I am not a parent or a guardian or anyone who will take care of you. I am your chaperone, and you are my apprentice, a word which here means ‘person who works under me and does absolutely everything I tell him to do.’ ”
“I’m contrite,” I said, “a word which here means—”
“You already said you were sorry,” S. Theodora Markson said. “Don’t repeat yourself. It’s not only repetitive, it’s redundant, and people have heard it before. It’s not proper. It’s not sen-sible. I am S. Theodora Markson. You may call me Theodora or Markson. You are my appren-tice. You work under me, and you will do everything I tell you to do. I will call you Snicket. There is no easy way to train an apprentice. My two tools are example and nagging. I will show you what it is I do, and then I will tell you to do other things yourself. Do you understand?”
“What’s the S stand for?”
“Stop asking the wrong questions,” she replied, and started the engine. “You probably think you know everything, Snicket. You are probably very proud of yourself for graduating, and for managing to sneak out of a bathroom window in five and a half minutes. But you know nothing.”
S. Theodora Markson took one of her gloved hands off the steering wheel and reached up to the dashboard of the roadster. I noticed for the first time a teacup, still steaming. The side of the cup read HEMLOCK.
“You probably didn’t even notice I took your tea, Snicket,” she said, and then reached across me and dumped the tea out the window. It steamed on the ground, and for a few seconds we watched an eerie cloud rise into the air of the alley. The smell was sweet and wrong, like a dangerous flower.
“Laudanum,” she said. “It’s an opiate. It’s a medicament. It’s a sleeping draught.” She turned and looked at me for the first time. She looked pleasant enough, I would say, though I wouldn’t say it to her. She looked like a woman with a great deal to do, which is what I was counting on. “Three sips of that and you would have been incoherent, a word which here means mumbling crazy talk and nearly unconscious. You never would have caught that train, Snicket. Your parents would have hurried you out of that place and taken you someplace else, someplace I assure you that you do not want to be.”
The cloud disappeared, but I kept staring at it. I felt all alone in the alley. If I had drunk my tea, I never would have been in that roadster, and if I had not been in that roadster, I never would have ended up falling into the wrong tree, or walking into the wrong basement, or destroying the wrong library, or finding all the other wrong answers to the wrong questions I was asking. She was right, S. Theodora Markson. There was no one to take care of me. I was hungry. I shut the door of the car and looked her in the eye.
“Those weren’t my parents,” I said, and off we went.
If you ask the right librarian and you get the right map, you can find the small dot of a town called Stain’d-by-the-Sea, about half a day’s drive from the city. But the town is actually nowhere near the sea but instead at the end of a long, bumpy road that has no name which is on no map you can find. I know this because it was in Stain’d-by-the-Sea that I spent my apprenticeship, and not in the city, where I thought it would be. I did not know this until S. Theodora Markson drove the roadster past the train station without even slowing down.
“Aren’t we taking the train?” I asked.
“That’s another wrong question,” she said. “I told you there’s been a change of plans. The map is not the territory. That’s an expression which means the world does not match the picture in our heads.”
“I thought we were working across town.”
“That’s exactly what I mean, Snicket. You thought we were working across town, but we are not working in the city at all.”
My stomach fell to the floor of the car, which rattled as we took a sharp turn around a construction site. A team of workers were digging up the street to start work on the Fountain of Victorious Finance. Tomorrow, if it were possible for an apprentice to sneak away for lunch, I was supposed to meet someone right there, in hopes of measuring how deep the hole was that they were digging. I’d managed to acquire a new measuring tape for just that purpose, one that stretched out a very long distance and then scurried back into its holder with a satisfying click. The holder was shaped like a bat, and the tape measure was red, as if the bat had a very long tongue. I realized I would never see it again.
“My suitcase,” I said, “is at the train station.”
“I purchased some clothes for you,” Theodora said, and tilted her helmeted head toward the backseat, where I saw a small, bruised suitcase. “I was given your measurements, so hopefully they fit. If they don’t, you will have to either lose or gain weight or height. They’re unremarkable clothes. The idea is not to attract attention.”
I thought that wearing clothes either too big or too small for me would be likely to attract attention, and I thought of the small stack of books I had tucked next to the bat. One of them was very important. It was a history of the city’s underground sewer system. I had planned to take a few notes on chapter 5 of the book, on the train across town. When I disembarked at Bellamy Station, I would crumple the notes into a ball and toss them to my associate without being seen. She would be standing at the magazine rack at Bellamy Books. It was all mapped out, but now the territory was different. She would read magazines for hours before catching her own train to her own apprenticeship, but then what would she do? What would I do? I scowled out the window and asked myself these and other hopeless questions.
“Your reticence is not appreciated,” Theodora said, breaking my sour silence. “ ‘Reticence’ is a word which here means not talking enough. Say something, Snicket.”
“Are we there yet?” I asked hopefully, although everyone knows that is the wrong question to ask the driver of a car. “Where are we going?” I tried instead, but for a moment Theodora did not answer. She was biting her lip, as if she were also disappointed about something, so I tried one more question that I thought she might like better. “What does the S stand for?”
“Someplace else,” she replied, and it was true. Before long we had passed out of the neighborhood, and then out of the district, and then out of the city altogether and were driving along a very twisty road that made me grateful I had eaten little. The air had such a curious smell that we had to close the windows of the roadster, and it looked like rain. I stared out the window and watched the day grow later. Few cars were on the road, but all of them were in better shape than Theodora’s. Twice I almost fell asleep thinking of places and people in the city that were dearly important to me, and the distance between them and myself growing and growing until the distance grew so vast that even the longest-tongued bat in the world could not lick the life I was leaving behind.
A new sound rattled me out of my thoughts. The road had become rough and crackly under the vehicle’s wheels as Theodora took us down a hill so steep and long I could not see the bottom of it through the roadster’s dirty windows.
“We’re driving on seashells,” my chaperone said in explanation. “This last part of the journey is all seashells and stones.”
“Who would pave a road like that?”
“Wrong question, Snicket,” she replied. “Nobody paved it, and it’s not really a road. This entire valley used to be underwater. It was drained some years back. You can see why it would be absolutely impossible to take the train.”
A whistle blew right then. I decided not to say anything. Theodora glared at me anyway and then frowned out the window. A distance away was the hurried, slender shape of a long train, balancing high above the bumpy valley where we were driving. The train tracks were on a long, high bridge, which curved out from the shore to reach an island that was now just a mountain of stones rising out of the drained valley. Theodora turned the roadster toward the island, and as we approached I could see a group of buildings—faded brick buildings enclosed by a faded brick wall. A school, per-haps, or the estate of a dull family. The buildings had once been elegant, but many of the windows were shattered and gone, and there were no signs of life. I was surprised to hear, just as the roadster passed directly under the bridge, the low, loud clanging of a bell, from a high brick tower that looked abandoned and sad on a pile of rocks.
Theodora cleared her throat. “There should be two masks behind you.”
“Masks?” I said.
“Don’t repeat what I say, Snicket. You are an apprentice, not a mynah bird. There are two masks on the backseat. We need them.”
I reached back and found the items in question but had to stare at them for a moment before I found the courage to pick them up. The two masks, one for an adult and one for a child, were fashioned from a shiny silver metal, with a tangle of rubber tubes and filters on the back. On the front were narrow slits for the eyes and a small ripple underneath for the nose. There was nothing where a mouth might be, so the faces of the masks looked at me silently and spookily, as if they thought this whole journey was a bad idea.
“I absolutely agree,” I told them.
Theodora frowned. “That bell means we should don these masks. ‘Don’ is a word which here means ‘put on our heads.’ The pressure at this depth will make it difficult to breathe otherwise.”
“Water pressure, Snicket. It’s everywhere around us. Masked or not, you must use your head.”
My head told me it didn’t understand how there could be water pressure everywhere around us. There wasn’t any water. I wondered where all the water had gone when they’d drained this part of the sea, and I should have wondered. But I told myself it was the wrong question and asked something else instead. “Why did they do this? Why did they drain the sea of its water?”
S. Theodora Markson took one mask from my hands and slipped it onto her helmeted head. “To save the town,” she replied in a muffled voice. “Put your mask on, Snicket.”
I did as Theodora said. The mask was dark inside and smelled faintly like a cave or a closet that had not been opened in some time. A few tubes huddled in front of my mouth, like worms in front of a fish. I blinked behind the slits at Theodora, who blinked back.
“Is the mask working?” she asked me.
“How can I tell?”
“If you can breathe, then it’s working.”
I did not say that I had been breathing previously. Something more interesting had attracted my attention. Out the window of the roadster I saw a line of big barrels, round and old, squatting uncovered next to some odd, enormous machines. The machines looked like huge hypodermic needles, as if a doctor were planning on giving several shots to a giant. Here and there were people—men or women, it was impossible to tell in their masks—checking on the needles to make sure they were working properly. They were. With a swinging of hinges and a turning of gears, the needles plunged deep into holes in the shell-covered ground and then rose up again, full of a black liquid. The needles deposited the liquid, with a quiet black splash, into the barrels and then plunged back into the holes, over and over again while I watched through the slits in my mask.
“Oil,” I guessed.
“Ink,” Theodora corrected. “The town is called Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Of course, it is no longer by the sea, as they’ve drained it away. But the town still manufactures ink that was once famous for making the darkest, most permanent stains.”
“And the ink is in those holes?”
“Those holes are long, narrow caves,” Theodora said, “like wells. And in the caves are octopi. That’s where the ink comes from.”
I thought of a friend of mine who had also just graduated, a girl who knew about all sorts of underwater life. “I thought octopi make ink only when they are frightened.”
“I imagine an octopus would find those machines very frightening indeed,” Theodora said, and she turned the roadster onto a narrow path in the shells that twisted upward, climbing a steep and craggy mountain. At its peak, I could see a faint, pulsing light through the afternoon gray. It took me a minute to realize that it was a lighthouse, which stood on a cliff that overlooked what had been waves and water and was now just a vast, eerie landscape. As the roadster sputtered up the hill, I looked out the windows on Theodora’s side and saw that opposite the inkwells was another strange sight.
“The Clusterous Forest,” Theodora said, before I could even ask. “When they drained the sea, everyone thought all of the seaweed would shrivel up and die. But my information says that for some mysterious reason, the seaweed learned to grow on dry land, and now for miles and miles there is an enormous forest of seaweed. Never go in there, Snicket. It is a wild and lawless place, not fit for man or beast.”
She did not have to tell me not to go into the Clusterous Forest. It was frightening enough just to look at it. It was less like a forest and more like an endless mass of shrubbery, with the shiny leaves of the seaweed twisting this way and that, as if the plants were still under churning water. Even with the windows shut, I could smell the forest, a brackish scent of fish and soil, and I could hear the rustling of thousands of strands of seaweed that had somehow survived the draining of the sea.
The bell rang again as the roadster finally reached the top of the hill, signaling the all-clear. We removed our masks, and Theodora steered the car onto an actual paved road that wound past the blinking lighthouse and down a hill lined with trees. We passed a small white cottage and then came to a stop at the driveway of a mansion so large it looked like several mansions had crashed together. Parts of it looked like a castle, with several tall towers stretching high into the cloudy air, and parts of it looked like a tent, with heavy gray cloth stretched over an ornate garden crawling with fountains and statues, and parts of it looked more like a museum, with a severe front door and a long, long stretch of window. The view from the window must have been very pretty once, with the waves crashing below the cliffs. It wasn’t pretty anymore. I looked down and saw the top of the Clusterous Forest, moving in slow ripples like spooky laundry hung out to dry, and the distant sight of the needles spilling ink into the waiting barrels.
Theodora braked and got out of the car, stretched, and took off her gloves and her leather helmet. I finally had a good look at her long, thick hair, which was almost as strange a sight as everything I had seen on the way. I needed a haircut, but S. Theodora Markson made me look bald. Her hair stretched out every which way from her head in long, curly rows, like a waterfall made from tangled yarn. It was very hard to listen to her while it was in front of me.
“Listen to me, Snicket,” my chaperone said. “You are on probation. Your penchant for asking too many questions and for general rudeness makes me reluctant to keep you. ‘Penchant’ is a word which here means habit.”
“I know what penchant means,” I said.
“That is exactly what I’m talking about,” Theodora said sternly, and quickly ran her fingers through her hair in an attempt to tame it. It was impossible to tame, like leeches. “Our first client lives here, and we are meeting with him for the first time. You are to speak as little as possible and let me do the work. I am very excellent at my job, and you will learn a great deal as long as you keep quiet and remember you are merely an apprentice. Do you understand?”
I understood. Shortly before graduation I’d been given a list of people with whom I could apprentice, ranked by their success in their various endeavors. There were fifty-two chaperones on the list. S. Theodora Markson was ranked fifty-second. She was wrong. She was not excellent at her job, and this was why I wanted to be her apprentice. The map was not the territory. I had pictured working as an apprentice in the city, where I would have been able to complete a very important task with someone I could absolutely trust. But the world did not match the picture in my head, and instead I was with a strange, uncombed person, overlooking a sea without water and a forest without trees.
I followed Theodora along the driveway and up a long set of brick stairs to the front door, where she rang the doorbell six times in a row. It felt like the wrong thing to do, standing at the wrong door in the wrong place. We did it anyway. Knowing that something is wrong and doing it anyway happens very often in life, and I doubt I will ever know why.
After the sixth ring of the doorbell, I could hear faint footsteps approaching the door, but my thoughts had drifted someplace else. Instead of standing at the door of a mansion in this strange, faraway place, I imagined myself back in the city, standing at the top of a hole with my tape measure and my trusted associate. I pictured myself in possession of all the belongings I had put in my suitcase. I pretended that I had no need of a strange, shiny mask. And most of all I had a vision of myself in which I was not so very hungry. I had planned to eat something on the train but instead had journeyed a great distance in Theodora’s roadster with not even the tiniest of snacks, and while in my mind I was quite full from an excellent meal, in Stain’d-by-the-Sea my stomach was growling something awful.
It was for this reason that I took little notice of the butler who opened the door for us or the hallway he led us down before opening a set of double doors and asking us to wait in the library. I should have paid attention. An apprentice should pay close attention to the details of a new location, particularly if the furniture seems wrong for the room, or if the library seems to have only a handful of books in it. But I didn’t even look back as the butler shut the doors behind us, and instead cast my eyes across the large, dim room to a small, bright table where tea had been laid out on a tray, along with a dozen cookies on a plate. I walked over to get a closer look. They were almond cookies, although they could have been made of spinach and shoes for all I cared. I ate eleven of them, right in a row. It is rude to take the last cookie.
Theodora had sat down on a small sofa and was looking at me with disgust. “Not proper, Snicket,” she said, shaking her head. “Not proper at all.”
“I saved you one,” I said.
“Sit right here next to me and stop talking,” Theodora said, tapping the sofa with a glove. “The butler told us to wait, and wait we shall.”
Wait we did. We waited long enough that I looked for something to read. The few books on the shelves looked like the sort of books someone would leave behind rather than ever look at again. I read five chapters of a book about a boy named Johnny. He lived in America when America was still England. One day he burned his hand and was no longer able to work as a silversmith, which sounded like a miserable line of work anyway, so he took an interest in local politics. I felt sorry for the guy, but I had other things on my mind and put the book back on the shelf just as the double doors opened and an old woman walked into the room with a limp and a black cane to go with it.
“Thank you for waiting,” she said in a voice even creakier than I’d thought it would be. “I am Mrs. Murphy Sallis.”
Excerpted from "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket Copyright © 2012 by Lemony Snicket. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
You Have to Take It Home: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Daniel Handler on Lemony Snicket
When I go to meet Lemony Snicket, bestselling children's author and alter ego of novelist Daniel Handler, outside his hotel in midtown Manhattan, it is a dreary day in October and there seem to be an unusual number of men milling about the rain wearing dress coats and fedoras. This seems entirely in keeping with the tone of his new series, All the Wrong Questions, the first since his Series of Unfortunate Events concluded in 2006, at unlucky book number thirteen.
While the first series, about the trials of the three Baudelaire orphans, riffed on gothic literature, the inspiration for the new series is clear from the first line: "There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft." Yes, this time Snicket intends to introduce children to the hardboiled noir fiction of Chandler, Hammett, and Ellroy.
But those are hardly his only references. Much as his earlier childrens' novels were dense with literary allusions, vocabulary words, and sophisticated recipes, the first novel of the new series, Who Could That Be at This Hour? includes references to novels by Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Louise Fitzhugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. This time, however, the references are even more oblique than before (The Dahl allusion, for example, comes when Snicket suggests that his cabdriver check out a book about "a champion of the world," to which the cab driver replies, "By that author with all the chocolate?")
The Snicket who narrated A Series of Unfortunate Events was a morose older gentleman, perpetually mooning after his lost love, Beatrice. The Snicket of the new series is a wisecracking, fresh-faced youth, on the cusp of thirteen.
Both Handler and Snicket have had collaborated with some of the coolest graphic artists and musicians around: Brett Helquist illustrated the first series; Maira Kalman illustrated both a Lemony Snicket title and Why We Broke Up, Handler's book for young adults; Handler's wife, children's author and illustrator Lisa Brown, illustrated several other titles; the new series is illustrated by graphic novelist Seth, best known for Palookaville. Handler has also been a collaborator, occasional touring member and accordion player for the Magnetic Fields since the 1990s; lead songwriter Stephin Merritt has written many songs for Snicket novels, including the new series.
Daniel Handler greets me in the lobby, bearing two green apples. "My son is reading that book," he says. That book is a pocket-sized version of Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems. Otto, son of Daniel Handler and Lisa Brown, is eight years old.
We stay inside, looking out at the rain, and discuss pen names, old records, imaginary films, Agatha Christie, precocious children, the Occupy movement and, of course, Frank O'Hara. —Amy Benfer
The Barnes & Noble Review: In this new novel — as in your first series — you play with the idea of pen names right off — one of the characters is named S. Theodora Markson, which clearly is a name a person would only use as an author. How do you feel about Lemony Snicket, your own literary persona, nearly fifteen years on?
Daniel Handler: I keep going back to the beginning: When the first two Snicket volumes were published, HarperCollins sent me to see a bunch of other children's authors do their presentations. They were mostly terrible. They had this notion of, "Let's deconstruct, let's demystify what literature is." "I'm going to show a slide of the desk where I work and different drafts," and stuff like that. 826 [the writing centers started by McSweeney's] does that, and I think that's an excellent way to teach kids who are actually engaged with writing how to write. But if you are just a reader, and you're young, I didn't see the point in demystifying it. I wanted to mystify it. So I saw those presentations and I thought, Oh I'm going to not say, "OK, it's me. I'm Lemony Snicket." Is that more interesting? I don't know. I hope it is, because now I am stuck with it.
BNR: The first pen names, especially in children's literature, weren't single authors at all, but multiple authors, all writing for a literary syndicate. There wasn't a real Carolyn Keene; there were many. But many children who grew up in reading those books had no idea. I told my mother this when she was in her fifties. She had never known. She said it was like learning there was no Santa Claus.
DH: At the height of Snicket madness, with the film and all, you could definitely see that was the assumption some companies began to work towards. They would say, "We're going to launch fifty books, to all different audiences." And I'd say, "I don't have the time or the interest to write fifty books." And they'd say, "We'll take care of that part for you." And I would say, "No, no. That's the only thing!" There are plenty of authors who are writing series who can't wait to get to the part where they get to sit at a desk with their feet up and not write anymore. I'm not interested in that. I want to put my feet down on the ground.
It's great to see children's literature out of the ghetto that it once was in. But I think there's still an assumption that it's not literature, that it can be moved around in such a way that I don't think, say, Denis Johnson gets asked to do.
BNR: Right, that it can be manipulated, that children's literature can be treated like genre or commercial fiction.
DH: I believe that children's literature is a genre. I resisted the idea that children's literature is just anything that children are reading. And I certainly resisted the idea that certain books should get promoted out of children's literature just because adults are reading them. That idea is enraging too. That's what happens to any genre, right? First you say, "Margaret Atwood isn't really a science fiction writer." Then you say, "There really aren't any good science fiction writers." That's because you promoted them all!
BNR: What appeals to you about doing original series fiction, with repeating characters?
DH: P. G. Wodehouse has always been a model for me. He's not a children's writer, but — this is going to sound self-lacerating — I take comfort in P. G. Wodehouse. One of the reasons I take comfort is in the sum of the parts working together. You think of P. G. Wodehouse as a massive work, and you take pleasure reading it. You might have a favorite P. G. Wodehouse, but there's not one P. G. Wodehouse novel everyone should read. You read one, and if you like it, you should read twenty.
BNR: This book is the first of the new series. But in between the last book of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the first book of this series, you've had a couple of stand-alone Lemony Snicket books, and a YA book, Why We Broke Up, as Daniel Handler. How do you choose which books are Handler books and which ones are Snicket?
DH: It's hard for me to pin down what a young adult novel is. I have a much easier time pinning down what a children's book is. In terms of whether it's Handler or Snicket: Snicket has his own voice, and he's narrating events that are somehow important to him. He might stop and tell a story, like Thirteen Words. But he's not going to pretend to be a teenage girl. That would be a complicated layering.
BNR: Your very first novel, The Basic Eight, also had teenage protagonists, and that's part of the reason your editor thought you might be good at writing for children. But that was still very much considered a novel for adults — with all the sex and murder and mayhem and all.
DH: One of the reasons I ended up writing for children is because it took a long time to get The Basic Eight published. And kind of in desperation, my agent said, "Why don't we give this to some people who are publishing YA?" It was a different time. It was 1997, I think. Everyone said, "There is no way we can publish this for young people. It has sex! It has drugs! It has drinking! It has violence!"
Now, it would be hard to get a YA novel published that didn't have one of those things. If you said to someone, "I've written a YA novel, but it has no drinking, drugs, sex or violence in it," they would say, "It had better have vampires in it. I'm telling you now!"
There's been talk — I don't know if it will happen — but there has been talk of re-packaging The Basic Eight as a YA novel, which just tickles me. Years later, it would be repackaged for the exact same reasons it was rejected. So that doesn't help me figure out YA literature.
BNR: The new novels are a portrait of the artist as a young Snicket. Did you have any idea of what Snicket was like as a child when you were writing Unfortunate Events?
DH: When I was writing the later ones, I thought if I ever did another series, it would concern itself with noir fiction, the way that the earlier series concerns itself with gothic fiction. And then it seemed to me that if he was going to go back and write real things that were important to him, it would be about his own childhood. I couldn't imagine him saying, "Now, I've completed thirteen volumes about these children who concern me very much, but there's this other thing happening." That seems exhausting. But the idea that he would say, "Here are some things I wrote down when I was young," that was interesting to me.
The other idea that interested me was that this lonely, Byronic figure was, in his childhood, Philip Marlowe. That he would be a brash detective with a mouth on him, who was observant, but mystified, and willing to get into a scrape that maybe he didn't have to get into. Those are all things that felt like childhood to me. Being told to lay off the case when there's something that really interests you. I liked the idea that you're born Philip Marlowe and you end up Heathcliff.
BNR: We also discover that, in his youth, Snicket, like Sunny, is an eater and cooker.
DH: There is a lot of food in both series. I'm an eater and a cooker. I think it's something you can actually do when you are young that is empowering and makes you feel sophisticated. When I was in high school, I had a lot of dinner parties. It made me feel like a grown-up, that I could buy fish and prepare it and make pasta sauce. It's that world I always wanted access to when I was young, and it's the allure of that world that happens in the Snicket books, too.
BNR: I kept a running tally of all your allusions in this book. With most of them, you would have to know the original to get it. Do you think the kids will go running off to solve the riddle right away, or are you anticipating them having a jolt somewhere in the future when they finally run into it somewhere else and figure it out?
DH: When A Series of Unfortunate Events was just starting up, the world was such that I thought, these kids are going to read about the Baudelaire orphans and then, ten years later, they're going to be in a college poetry class and they're going to say, Oh, my goodness.
Now with interactivity, and the world becoming a search engine, you actually can find that out instantly. So then I thought it's more interesting to have Snicket get in a conversation about a book, but there's nothing you can Google. I'm sure there will still be forums, or chat rooms where one person has figured it out. But you have to figure it out in some other way.
BNR: That's interesting: the idea that greater technological transparency pushes you towards greater literary obscurity.
DH: I recently had this really incredible experience. I'm writing a column for the Believer in which I read one book by each Nobel Prize winners in literature. I read this French novel by someone who had won the prize some years back. There was this sheet of notes tucked into my old used copy. Most of them were just page numbers. But then it had a few jotted down phrases, as if someone was planning an essay. One of them was a quote. I put that quote into Google, and I found this review of the novel in Time magazine from the 1950s, in which all those phrases are used. So probably I have the literary critic's copy of the book, with all the notes that were used to write the article.
I loved how all of the technology came together. That wouldn't have happened with an eBook, that you found someone's old notes. But then, you couldn't have found who it was without Google. I wouldn't have said, "These look like a critic's notes. Let's find every extant review of this novel." It was a goose-pimply moment.
BNR: Do you still write marginalia in your books? I used to mark up everything, but now find I mark up galleys, but I like to keep my hardcovers neat.
DH: I don't mark them up too much. I put a list of pages in the back. Then a little dot on the table of contents next to the ones I like. [He brings out a hardcover copy of Theodore Roethke poems, which has been marked up in such a way.] I read poetry when I'm on the road. I find it's the best thing to read on the road, because you can actually read two poems in a green room and be transformed someplace, whereas if you have a novel under your arm, you are thinking, What was happening again? Then you're out of time.
I always have three books on my bedstand. I have the book I'm reading, then I have a little book of poetry, then I have some big thick thing that I am going through slowly, which is often collected poetry.
BNR: So how did your son get into Frank O'Hara?
DH: We go to Dog-Eared Books a lot. We'll have a taco, and then we'll walk down to Dog-Eared Books. He has not been the quickest reader, but he saw a copy of Lunch Poems, and those were two words he could read right away. Then he saw it was poetry. He's seen me marking a dot in the table of contents next to poems I liked, and he was really into the idea that you could do that. So he said, "I want to get this copy of Lunch oems and put a dot next to the poems I really like."
And I said, "Of course, we're going to buy you a copy of Lunch Poems." Why wouldn't we? He remains a sophisticated favorite of the staff at Dog-Eared books, largely because he walked right past the giant Harry Potter display to put a copy of Lunch Poems right on the counter.
BNR: That sounds like something right out of a Snicket novel. You started writing the Snicket novels many years before you had a child. Now he is Snicket reading age, right?
DH: He's scared of the books. He has not read them. He's timid about the subject matter and we've raised him, perhaps irresponsibly, on a very low media diet so he hasn't had a lot of scary stuff in his world. He's uncomfortable with that, because certainly his classmates are reading Snicket. He's certainly excited this year to have a dad who does what I do, but he's still scared of the shadowy villain on the cover.
BNR: We've talked about the Philip Marlowe references, but you also mention a "roadster," which seems to be a wink to the books put by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which included Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels.
DH: I wasn't a big Hardy Boys fan. I think the only time I read a Nancy Drew book was in a women's studies class at Wesleyan University. Isn't that pathetic? But I liked Agatha Christie. I hopscotched past the Hardy Boys and read a ton of Agatha Christie in fifth and sixth grade. I've reread a couple of them, and they're full of things I couldn't possibly understand in fifth and sixth grade. I really wish I could peek at my brain then and see what I was getting out of it.
BNR: I remember jumping to adult books really early, too, and I'm not at all sure I understood everything. Although I did learn a lot about sex and drugs and drinking and all the rest from adult fiction.
DH: I do wonder about that with young adult fiction. I read John O'Hara at a fairly young age. My parents had a copy of Sermons and Soda Water. I thought, "That's a cool title. I'll try that." In John O'Hara, a drink goes without saying. Everyone is having whiskey. It's not a sign of anything. Now, in young adult literature, there's not a lot of drinking in young adult literature that's harmless. It's a character study, it's how you know someone is a villain or reckless or in trouble. In John O'Hara, it's like a necktie. Everyone has a drink. I wonder if it makes alcohol more tempting — to have all these novels where it is the ultimate sin. When I read John O'Hara, I thought, well, my dad drinks bourbon. It smells gross to me, but I didn't think, "Oh, it's a sign of social disintegration."
I read my first noir in early high school. A man has a party and a woman comes and says, "I really need to talk to you." And then they leave and they go to the roof of the building and they have a drink. I thought that was the most glamorous thing in the world. I waited for that to happen to me throughout high school. To go to a party, and to be led away, then handed a drink by a woman on a roof, fraught with trouble.
BNR: I guess one could say that in that way, presenting salacious content — sex, drugs and drink — and associating them with the "bad" kids is actually a form of moralizing.
DH: That has a deep history. Victorian pornography novels would always have these introductions that say, "This is a case study in what you should never do." And you turn the page and it's, "I met three sailors and I took them up to my room."
BNR: In Why We Broke Up, all your didactic moments were for films. But they were all films that didn't exist. Some of those films sounded wonderful. I imagine many readers were disappointed they were ones they could never see.
DH: That's a good example of how the Web works. A reader said, "The first thing I did was go to buy a Hawke Davies record on iTunes. And then I was really frustrated to learn that he didn't exist."
That might be a decade long search of record stores back in the day.
I sound like Andy Rooney when I talk about this, but when I think about how accessible pop music is now. I just did it. I watched an episode of Girls on the plane and I heard a song I really liked. When I got to the hotel, I Googled "Girls, episode, music list," I found the song, I downloaded the song, it's on my iPod. It used to be you would hear a song in a restaurant and you would think, What is that beautiful song? And then you would hear it five years later and pray that the DJ would outro it. You'd buy the wrong record sometimes. You'd say, "Oh, I like this song by New Order. New Order has a new record out." You'd buy the album, you'd take it home, and the song wouldn't be on there. Now I see kids wave the phone in the air, and they buy it right there on their phone.
BNR: But on the plus side, you might find something else you like on the album. I'm a record collector, and sometimes DJ, and I have made it a point sometimes to intentionally buy records I don't know. I'll look at the cover art, the track listing.
DH: That's more the experience of literature. You can read a paragraph online, or a few pages in the bookstore, but it's going to take you seventy-five pages or so to see if you really love a book. You have to take it home. There's nothing else that can convince you.
BNR: Last year, when you wrote a statement for Occupy, the statement was from Snicket, not from Handler. Was there an intention behind that?
DH: It was a way that I could talk about that kind of archly, so that someone might read it. I had an encounter with a successful, entitled jerk and I thought I want to say something about this. If you work hard, and you're wealthy, it doesn't mean you're wealthy because you work hard. I thought if it came from me, it would sound sneering, but if it came from Snicket, it just seemed charming. Tweetable, as they say.
BNR: And it's a way to help children understand the movement too, perhaps.
DH: Part of it was definitely having a child. We get The New York Times and the Chronicle every morning, and he likes to look at the front photograph and ask me about it. It's like a pop quiz every morning at six-thirty. And it was Occupy one day, and I tried to explain about how we gave the banks money, but now they are not giving other people money and he said, "That makes me so mad, I want to smash a window." He said that! And it was funny, because I could say, "Well, look over here on page A12, it made these people mad enough that they are actually smashing windows!"
I thought, I can't be the only one having this conversation, so maybe I can give somebody a sound bite, because I wish someone had given me one when I had to explain it.
BNR: Are you still working with Magnetic Fields?
DH: Yes. I haven't played with them on the East Coast for a while, but I still do often on the West Coast. It's the fulfillment of the rock star fantasy: I don't have to do any of the hard work, and sometimes I get to go into a studio and have fun, and sometimes I get to be onstage and feel like a rock star, and when they say, "Would you like to go with us to the Deep South in the middle of the summer to play shows?" I get to say no.
My son loves the Magnetic Fields. That's another example. His favorite song is "God Wants Us to Wait." That's deadpan, mocking look at a fundamentalist view on sexuality. Every part of that is unknown to my son. So I don't know what he gets out of it.
BNR: My friend and I used to play Magnetic Fields for our kids when they were around that age. It was the late nineties, so that was the 69 Love Songs era. They loved those songs.
DH: It's a big children's record. It's fascinating. I've worked with Stephin forever. He just wrote me a new song that I'm performing on this tour. Both of us have ended up with a large audience of children that we never in our lives thought we would have. His production on 69 Love Songs, because it changes genres so much, is great for a short attention span. He didn't plan that it meant you could listen to it in kindergarten, but it totally works out that way. You just have to run to the skip button before "How Fucking Romantic," comes on, that's what I've learned. I think it's track 14 on the first disc. I'm still a disc person. [Ed. Note: The song in question is, in fact, track 14.]
—October 30, 2012